In the late eighteenth century, sailors who arrived in the Pacific Northwest rejoiced to discover the wonderful boxes, chests, utensils, bowls and other useful objects made by the First Nations who lived there. These items were beautifully carved and painted with human and animal figures from their myths and legends.
Capitalizing on their knowledge, the West Coast tribes traded and sold masses of objects to the European explorers, sailors and travellers. They carved decorative items like totem poles and miniature houses, using varied materials: wood, stone, argillite, mountain goat horns, bone, whale teeth, grizzly molars and walrus tusks. They also made masks, headdresses, rattles, flutes, whistles, pipes, and plates.
The drawings and sculptures of Pacific Northwest First Nations were distinguished by their oval U- and S-shaped forms. Their art had the following characteristics:
• Every bit of blank space would be filled with figures. For instance, the empty space on a ceremonial screen or Chilkat blanket might be filled with eyes, feet or hands. Only designs from the Nootka tribe show any blank space.
• All figures would be heavily outlined. This outline might be duplicated or carved for greater emphasis.
• The design would split in two at the object’s centre.
• The most common colours were red, black, blue-green and yellow.
To ensure symmetry and exactitude in reproducing the designs, the artists used templates made from cedar bark. Body parts were always stylized: eyes, nose, ears, eyebrows, tongue arms, legs, hands, feet, and the tails, wings and feathers of birds.
The same care was taken with the designs reproduced on clothing. The Chilkat, a branch of the Tlingit, were the first to produce magnificently decorated blankets made from mountain goat wool.